At age 24, Egyptian booktuber Nada Elshabrawi is a social media star and the rare literary influencer in the Middle East. She says it all started because of a happy accident: “In March 2017—I was studying law at the time—I posted a video to Facebook talking about my love of books. It went viral; then in August, when I switched to YouTube and got 5,000 followers, it went from something fun to something more serious. I felt a huge responsibility to my followers to help them read better books.”
Today, Elshabrawi has 72,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and has posted 175 videos, with a new video coming every week. She had the chance to meet her literary hero, Isabelle Allende, this summer in California for a private two-hour interview. “It was a highlight of my career so far,” Elshabrawi says.
Career? Indeed, Elshabrawi is a member of a postrevolution generation of young publishing professionals who are pushing the boundaries of what is traditionally acceptable in Egyptian publishing and are attracting vast new audiences for their work—particularly for fiction, both locally produced and in translation.
Before this summer, when she committed to working on her YouTube channel full-time, Elshabrawi was publishing manager of Alexandria-based Ibiidi Pubishing—a company that sprang out of an online bookseller of the same name. “We only published our first books eight months ago and hope to have 50 titles published in time for the Cairo Book Fair in January,” says Emad Eldeen Elakehal, managing director of Ibiidi and the former chief technology officer at U.K.-based online bookseller Book Depository. Emigration and the lives of refugees are an early focus for the list, and among the first titles to appear is Spring and Winter by Atef Al Haj, a novel about two brothers who illegally immigrate to France but find themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum. “We plan to start publishing translations, primarily from English, starting next year,” Elakehal adds.
The emergence of a new generation of publishing professionals in Egypt is “really exciting,” says Sherif Bakr, co-owner of 44-year-old Al-Arabi publishing and distribution company in Cairo. In December 2018, Bakr led a group of eight Egyptian publishers—including Elshabrawi—on a tour of the United States. “Though it was really cold there, visiting Greywolf in Minneapolis was a highlight for us,” says Bakr. The visit was sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
“Egyptian publishing has been very traditional for a long time, but with the postrevolution generation, that is changing significantly,” Bakr notes. Al-Arabi, long a leader in the Egyptian academic market, introduced a line of literary translations in 2010 that has now reached 150 titles in print and includes books from a diverse array of authors, such as Colombia’s Santiago Gamboa, Iceland’s Jon Gnarr, Ukraine’s Andrei Kurkov, and American mystery writer Donna Leon. The surprise bestseller from the list: the Arabic translation of Purge, by Finnish-Estonian author Sofie Oksanen, which has sold 1,000 copies since it was published five months ago.
Perhaps the most exciting new publisher to emerge in postrevolutionary Egypt is Kayan Publishing, which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Mohammed Gameel Sabry and Neven Eltohamy, a couple who met during the occupation of Tahrir Square in 2011. “I saw her one night when there was violence happening and offered to accompany her home,” says Sabry. “Now we have this family business together.”
Kayan found success reissuing titles by horror novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik in new editions. Tawfik, who died in 2018, sold more than 15 million books during his career, making him likely the bestselling Arabic-language fiction writer in recent memory. Neflix signed a deal in May to turn the books into a series.
Kayan is also responsible for another # 1 bestseller in the Arabic language: Khawla Hamdi’s A Jewish Girl in My Heart, a novel about a Tunisian Muslim girl who moves to Lebanon, where she lives with and befriends a Jewish family. “We have sold almost 200,000 copies,” Sabry says. “But in addition to being the most popular book, it is also the most pirated. We estimate that it has been illegally downloaded more than one million times.”
Kayan acquires world rights to all of its titles and is now shopping the novel to foreign publishers. “I was just in Frankfurt in October, and we’re starting conversations,” Sabry says. “People don’t know about the great books we publish in this region, but that is about to change.”
Sherif and Ranya Bakr, co-owners of Al-Arabi Publishing and Distribution